Publicity poster for 'The Lair of the White Worm' (© Ken Russell/White Lair/Vestron Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Last night I watched the 1988 British horror movie 'The Lair of the White Worm', directed by the infamous Ken Russell (who also wrote its screenplay), and what a surreal, hilarious romp it was. Loosely inspired by Dracula creator Bram Stoker's final, same-titled novel (first published in 1911), it also drew even more heavily than that latter novel did upon the famous northern England legend of the Lambton Worm - a huge limbless serpent dragon laying waste to the countryside until it was eventually slain by Lord Lambton. Indeed, in the movie version, Caswall, the surname of the local aristocrat in Stoker's novel, has been changed to the Lambton-soundalike surname D'Ampton. Set in rural Derbyshire, England, it stars a young Hugh Grant as Lord James D'Ampton whose ancestor reputedly slew a huge serpent dragon known in this area as the D'Ampton Worm; an also young Peter Capaldi as visiting Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint who unearths a giant snake-like skull during some local excavations; the regal Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent, the co-owner (with her sister Mary) of a countryside bed-and-breakfast hotel near to where the skull was found; and, above all others, a fabulously OTT Amanda Donohoe as the serpentine (in more ways than one) and seductively evil Lady Sylvia Marsh (changed from Lady Arabella March in the novel).
Lady Arabella March, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm, published a year before Bram Stoker's death (public domain)
In deliciously (forked) tongue-in-cheek style, Donohoe plays the part of an immortal, sexually-charged snake priestess, secretly serving a gigantic male ophidian deity named Dionin who has been lurking unseen for untold ages within the vast underground cave system not far from D'Ampton's castle and Marsh's stately home. Moreover, Lady Marsh is capable of transforming into a blue-skinned, venom-fanged humanoid snake whenever the need to ravish and abduct an unsuspecting local for sacrificial purposes arises, which it does on a very regular basis throughout this manic movie. And as if all of that wasn't enough, anyone bitten by her is transformed, vampire-like, into a befanged snake-human themselves.
The White Worm rears up above the forest, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm (public domain)
Yet another of the movie's multitude of plot lines is that centuries earlier, in this very same location and currently the subject of Angus's digs, a convent had been built upon the site where in Roman times a pagan temple devoted to serpent worship had existed, and this confrontation of religions is visualised very dramatically via a series of hallucinations interspersed through the film, in which, as was his wont, Russell left nothing to the imagination – intertwining and juxtapositioning in shocking, eyeball-shattering fantasy sequences all manner of Christian, ophiolatreian, and explicit sexual symbols and images in often deeply disturbing, overtly offensive scenes. These aside, however, the film is mostly played for laughs, strewn with the kind of saucy double entendres and phallic allusions that would make a Carry On star blush, plus a neat twist at the very end. Very much a cult classic and an absolute must for monster-movie buffs like me.
My 1960 Arrow Books paperback edition of The Lair of the White Worm, which I first read just a few years before the movie version was released (public domain/Arrow Books)
But what was the story of the Lambton Worm that so influenced this movie? I retold its legend in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995), so here, as a ShukerNature exclusive, is my never-before-seen original version of that retelling, before it was edited down in order to fit the space allocated to it in the published book.
Dragons: A Natural History (© Dr Karl Shuker/Aurum Press)
Curse of the Lambton Worm
It was Easter Sunday morning in 1420, and everyone from the village of Washington, close to the River Wear in County Durham, England, was hurrying to church - everyone, that is, except for John Lambton, the young, dissolute heir to Lambton Castle nearby.
Eschewing spiritual solace and observation of the Sabbath for more material, disrespectful pleasures, he was fishing in the river, ignoring the disapproving glances of churchgoers passing by. As the morning drew on with not a single fish taking his bait, however, Lambton's mood darkened, and he cursed aloud with blasphemous abandon at his ill-fortune.
As if bidden by this profane outburst, a sudden ripple shivered across the river's surface. Moments later, Lambton felt something tug sharply at his line, but it was not a fish. When he hauled it up out of the water, he thought at first that it was some form of aquatic worm or leech, small yet very elongate with black slimy skin. Then it raised its head, and looked at him - and even the brash Lambton caught his breath in horror, for his unexpected catch had the head of a dragon...and the face of a devil!
Its jaws were very slender, brimming with long needle-like teeth, and evil-smelling fluid oozed from nine gill-like slits on either side of its neck, but all that Lambton saw were its eyes. Like icy coals they glittered, snaring his own in a glacial, mesmeric trance - and as he gazed helplessly into them, all the sins of his misspent, wasted youth danced amid their malevolent darkness like mocking, accursed wraiths.
Lambton Worm illustration by John Dickson Batten, from More English Fairy Tales (1894) (public domain)
Lambton had initially planned to keep whatever he caught, but all that he wanted to do now was to rid himself of this loathsome creature, and he lost no time in casting it down into a nearby well. From that moment on he was a changed person, seeking redemption and salvation for his former misdeeds, a mission that led him a few years later to set out as a crusader - some say in the Hussite Crusade, others say in the Middle East. And so he left Lambton Castle far behind - but he also left behind a monstrous manifestation of his former wickedness.
Unbeknownst to Lambton, his vermiform captive had thrived within the well's gloomy confines, growing steadily and stealthily larger, and ever more powerful. One morning, some Washington villagers spied a strange trail glistening with acidic slime, leading from the well to a hill close by. Intrigued, they followed the trail – and a terrible sight met their eyes.
So huge that its snake-like body had enfolded it nine times within its mighty coils, a hideous limbless dragon of the type known as a worm or orm lay basking upon the hill. Livid slime seared the grass beneath its body, and poisonous vapour spiralling out of its mouth withered the leaves of the surrounding trees.
Thus began the Lambton Worm's grisly reign of terror - during which it laid waste to Washington's once-verdant countryside, devoured livestock and even small children with impunity, and turned the villagers into captives within their homes, frightened to set foot outside their door for fear of encountering their land's deadly despoiler. In desperation, they attempted to pacify the monster with an offering of milk - an ancient, customary gesture when faced with a marauding dragon - and so a huge trough was filled with fresh milk and placed in Lambton Castle's courtyard where it could be readily seen by the worm.
Coloured vintage illustration of Lambton doing battle in his spike-bearing armour with his virulent namesake (public domain)
As anticipated, the creature rapidly slithered forth, and gleefully lapped up the creamy offering with its viperine tongue. For the rest of that day and all through the night, it remained passively wrapped around its chosen hillside retreat - but when no further milk was forthcoming on the following morning, it rampaged in fury, with the terrified villagers cowering in their houses. So from that day on, every village cow was milked exclusively to provide a sufficient daily tribute to satisfy the worm.
Every so often, one or more brave villagers attempted to dispatch their serpentine enslaver with sword or lance, but even if they succeeded in slicing the beast in half, the halves immediately joined together again - yielding a fully-intact, highly-irascible worm that rarely gave its attackers the opportunity either to repeat their ploy or to flee the fray.
Years passed by, until at last John Lambton returned home from the Crusades, and was horrified to discover the worm's baneful presence. Determined to rid his land of this animate evil that had been inflicted upon it by his own youthful decadence, he sought the advice of a wise old witch. She informed him that he would only succeed in killing the monster if he wore a special suit of armour surfaced in sharp blades, and if he confronted it in the middle of the river where he had originally caught it.
There was, however, a price to pay for success. After slaying the worm, he must also slay whoever was first to meet him afterwards. If he failed to do this, the Lambton lineage would be cursed, and for nine generations no Lambton heir would die in his own bed.
Lambton Worm illustration by CE Brock, from English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (1890), edited by Edwin S Hartland (public domain)
Heeding all that the witch told him, Lambton arranged for the spike-adorned armour to be prepared at once, and promptly set forth in it to engage in battle with his dreadful foe. By swift and subtle sword-play, Lambton enticed the worm into the fast-flowing water of the River Wear. Once there, however, the worm seized him in its coils - but the more that it sought to crush him, the more severely his suit's razor-sharp blades pierced its body. Aided by his own sword's ready thrusts, the blades eventually sliced the worm into several segments - and before they could recombine, the river's swift current bore them away. Thus was the fearsome Lambton Worm destroyed.
Joyfully, John Lambton returned home to his castle - but although he had vanquished the worm, its curse lingered on. His old father, ecstatic to see that his son had survived his formidable encounter, was the very first living thing to run out and greet him. At this, Lambton became pale with fear, knowing that if he were to secure the safety of his descendants he must kill his own father - but he simply couldn't do so. Instead, he killed his most faithful dog, in the hope that this sacrifice would be sufficient - but it was not.
For the next nine generations, every heir to Lambton Castle met a tragic end. The worm had gone, but for ever afterwards the legend of this terrible serpent dragon would be irrevocably intertwined with the name of Lambton.
Finally: for further details regarding the Lambton Worm, be sure to check out Paul Screeton's comprehensive coverage in his book Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs: The Lambton Worm and Other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (1998), for which I was delighted to write a foreword. Its main title is a line from a famous folk song retelling the Lambton Worm legend – click here to listen to ex-Animals member Alan Price singing it on YouTube, with its full lyrics provided below the video.
Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs (© Paul Screeton/Northeast Press Ltd)